Maine's Vernal Pools Under Attack
The legislature’s Natural Resources Committee will examine vernal pools, and all of their mystery, on Monday, April 25. A bunch of bills scheduled for public hearing that day seek to roll back or eliminate protections for these fragile pools of critical wildlife habitat.
To help me understand the issues, I turned to Phillip deMaynadier, the Reptile, Amphibian & Invertebrate Group Leader at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In February Phil published an excellent briefing paper on vernal pools called Milestones and Misconceptions.
Vernal pools are small forested wetlands whose depressions fill with water from spring snowmelt and rain and dry partly or completely by late summer. With a rich food base and no fish, these pools provide critical habitat for over 500 species, mostly amphibians and aquatic invertebrates. Many rare and endangered species depend on vernal pools.
Special rules were adopted in 2006 to protect only the vernal pools judged to be “significant.” Scientists utilize several criteria to make this determination, including the presence of key species.
Most vernal pools are not significant and remain unprotected. Of the nearly 1200 vernal pools reviewed to date statewide, only 230 (19 percent) were significant.
State agencies won’t be poking around your back forty looking for vernal pools without your permission. Phil won’t even accept information on vernal pools from the public unless the person submitting the information provides a letter of permission and support from the landowner.
Forest management activities including associated road construction are exempt from regulation in or near significant vernal pools. Development activities that maintain 75 percent of the forest canopy within 250 feet of significant vernal pools get a quick and easy permit.
Of the 465 more rigorous full-process permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in 2010 for all natural resource issues from wetlands to sand dunes, only 4 involved significant vernal pools. Since the implementation of vernal pool protections in 2007, the DEP hasn’t denied a single permit for a proposal involving significant pools.
Phil says the 250-foot zone around significant vernal pools is critical to the viability of pool-breeding wildlife and I believe him. Some critters actually need 400 feet.
So it’s hard to find anything good about bills that would reduce that zone to 75 feet, and eliminate it altogether if the vernal pool is not on your property.
We can certainly make things better for landowners. Streamlined permitting processes, a better attitude by some regulators, more respect from the public for what landowners provide – those are the things I hope are still standing on the battlefield, when this war over vernal pools is over. And lets hope our most vulnerable creatures are still there too.